The Inconvenient Truth About Net Neutrality

A graphic from Sen. Al Franken's campaign website.

A graphic from the Senator’s official website.

Remember the tea party wave of 2010, when all the “real” progressives stayed home to show Obama how disappointed they were because the ACA didn’t have a public option? Something else happened in that election: every single one of the ninety-five Democrats who signed on to the net neutrality pledge lost their races, pretty much nixing any chance that advocates would ever be able to build a legislative power-base. Netflix is the poster boy for this issue, but they have stopped holding out for the basic rules of the internet to be upheld and started paying the new telecom tolls, so it’s a little late for Arianna Huffington’s editors to put President Obama’s face on this miserable movement failure.

The people who care about this issue the most — younger, hyper-connected adults — are the same voters who stayed home that year and ensured this day would come. As an interest group, the internet is actually very bad at turning its native causes into political action. I know that this flies in the face of all the petitions and crowdsourced fundraisers and so on, but can you imagine a world where Time Warner stops paying lobbyists and funding candidates just to show Congress how disappointed they are, knowing that a vote will be held on net neutrality sometime after the election? Of course not.

The tortured passage of the Affordable Care Act also highlighted another problem I often find in the demographic which stayed home in 2010: an impatience with political process, and even the basic structures of government, that I think is largely the result of civics education being drained from the American classroom in recent decades. To be blunt, the internet generation knows less about how laws are made than their parents did — and cares less, because in being “connected” to the virtual world through their smart phones they are disconnected from the world of real power and influence. Confronted with the way things are, they prefer to demand instead that things just ought to work a different way.

Net neutrality was a huge issue for the blogosphere in 2010, but then it largely faded afterwards. The internet freedom organizations that once championed the cause have mostly gotten sidetracked in Luddite notions of how metadata works and alarmist reporting on Edwards Snowden’s stolen PowerPoint slides. Meanwhile, the FCC got stuck in regulatory gridlock for four years, and John Boehner held a hundred votes to repeal Obamacare. Like I keep saying, it doesn’t matter how right your opinions are: as long as you lack the hard electoral power of political office-holders answering favorably to your issues, your agenda is just a daydream, even if it is “the First Amendment issue of our time.”

One president is not enough to change that. For a national issue like this one, you need at least ninety-five people to owe their offices to your support, just for a start, and you can never accomplish that with a slacker’s protest. The inconvenient truth about net neutrality is that hipster activism has proven utterly impotent, whereas the health care reform law that wasn’t good enough or fast enough for the cool kids has somehow managed to become part of our American lives despite their disdain.

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  • Drew4U

    Excellent piece!! Well said and so necessary!

  • muselet

    The usually-sensible Michael Hiltzik managed to get through an entire column on net neutrality without a single mention of Congress, or the implacable opposition of Rs to net neutrality, or the string of federal court decisions curtailing the FCC’s jurisdiction over the internet, or the Bush Administration’s decision not to have the FCC even attempt to regulate anything related to the internet. Instead, Hiltzik blames Tom Wheeler personally and makes him the only person wearing a black hat (although Hiltzik also takes a gratuitous slap at Barack Obama just for lagniappe).

    Maybe if the whingeing emoprogs sit out another election the Right will have its chance to turn the country into a smoldering ruin, and it’d be all Obama’s fault! Sheesh.

    –alopecia

  • Scopedog

    Well done, Matt. Thanks for this.